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Mystics back on the practice floor, eyeing a return by Elena Delle Donne

Elena Delle Donne has only been able to watch as the Washington Mystics struggled to an 8-10 record in the first half. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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These are frustrating times for Elena Delle Donne. The 2016 Olympian is sitting at home while the rest of Team USA competes for a seventh consecutive gold medal in Tokyo. She wasn’t named an all-star for the first time since turning pro and she tuned in and out of the U.S. squad’s exhibition against Team WNBA two weeks ago while she continues to recover from a pair of back surgeries.

“I am at the point of from when I wake up and have my head on the pillow to when I put my head on my pillow and go to sleep,” Delle Donne told The Washington Post, “I’m doing literally everything I possibly can to get back and to do my best to play this season. It’s been really tough. I’m sure others are frustrated that I’m not out there, like the fans and all, but there’s no one more frustrated than myself.

“And I’m just trying my best to find peace in my day — but also know that I am giving literally everything I possibly have to get back out there.”

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The Washington Mystics are officially back this week, beginning individual workouts as the Olympic pause rolls on until the league returns with the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup championship game on Aug. 12. More complete team workouts are expected to start this weekend or early next week.

These next few weeks are being used as a mini training camp, with the odd scheduling of an Olympic year making the first half of the season choppy. Spring training camp opened just a week and a half before the season started and WNBA teams were still shorthanded as health and safety precautions eliminated the use of male practice players. The Mystics were already down bodies with Delle Donne still recovering, Myisha Hines-Allen and Emma Meesseman playing overseas and Alysha Clark (foot) out for the season. Additionally, the schedule didn’t allow for much practice time between games.

So the first half of the season was focused on survival as Delle Donne, Hines-Allen (knee), Erica McCall (knee) and Natasha Cloud (ankle) all missed significant time due to injury. The Mystics (8-10) went into the break in the final playoff spot with the need to find consistency in the second half. They are still short on bodies, and it appears health will continue to be the biggest influence on the team’s success.

Coach Mike Thibault said Hines-Allen was not expected to do much until close to the end of the break, though there seemed to be confidence in her return. Meesseman has yet to clarify her intentions. Thibault hoped to get Delle Donne cleared for physical contact and team practices for the final week before games restart, though her rehab schedule has been delayed repeatedly.

“When we start practicing again, the intent is to try to integrate her into a fair amount of the practices, right now,” Thibault said. “Elena has been feeling better. We’ll see how it translates once she starts getting physical contact.”

In the meantime, Delle Donne continues her daily rehab. It began slowly, relearning to walk, stand and sit. She and her wife, Amanda, are also producing a YouTube series that details their lives, and they are running a business that sells wooden pieces of art.

Elena Delle Donne’s back pain made her question her career, but she’s now eager to return

Delle Donne has also begun to work on bringing attention to the significant numbers of girls that quit playing sports as they hit puberty.

“To not have sports to help you learn so many of the life skills that we need … that’s something that I find alarming and want to definitely help,” Delle Donne said. “Because I remember when I was young, sports in general helped me so much to feel comfortable in my body.”

Now she is seeking a different type of comfort — one that might help her return to action as the second half of the season approaches. The Mystics are in a good spot with their schedule, with a league-low 18 games played. Most teams have played 20 or 21 games, which gives Washington the opportunity to make up ground — especially if the 2019 MVP in Delle Donne and a second-team all-WNBA selection in Hines-Allen return.

The plan is to just ramp up each week now and see what I can do and if I can push through,” Delle Donne said. “So that is definitely the plan.”

“… I am trusting all these hours that I put in daily will help me to get through this and to get over the hump and be where I need to be.”

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